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Sexual Assault Reporting: Post-Lara Logan, Business As Usual - The LAMP

Sexual Assault Reporting: Post-Lara Logan, Business As Usual

By March 9, 2011 News One Comment

Lara Logan

After CBS News revealed that one of its reporters, Lara Logan, had been sexually assaulted while covering news in Egypt, the media response to the incident gained almost as much attention as the incident itself. Various pieces ran the unfortunate but typical range of claims that she was asking for it, it’s her fault because she put herself in harm’s way, etc. There was a fair degree of outcry against the blame-the-victim reporting, with the implication that media should avoid this in the future. (Full disclosure: I myself was sexually abused as a child, now over twenty years ago.)With this acknowledgment, there was a glimmer of hope, albeit a thin one, that media may change. And so I was furious when I read a story in the New York Times by James C. McKinley Jr. about an 11-year-old girl who was gang raped in Texas, and found that we’re back to business as usual.

The basic story is that just after Thanksgiving, police in Cleveland, TX were alerted to a cell phone video which showed a girl being gang raped in a trailer home. 18 men and boys have been rounded up as suspected participants in the rape. The intro to the article is fairly objective, stating known facts, including that some of the suspects have criminal records. But when the article progresses to discussing the impact of the attack on the local community, the first quote comes from a hospital worker who knows some of the suspects, saying, “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”

It was at this point that I began to take issue. The boys have to live with this? What about the girl? I fully respect that the suspects have feelings, and frankly whether or not they are convicted, they will most likely move through Cleveland, TX with a scarlet letter just for being implicated in the rape. However, is it really appropriate that the first note of empathy here is for the accused?

The article continues, describing how the incident came to light and providing some other details from the affidavit, and goes on to state that residents in the area had seen the victim in the area (known as the Quarters) for months as she visited friends. The residents added that she dressed inappropriately for an 11-year-old, wore makeup and hung out with teenage boys at the playground. The same hospital worker quoted earlier is quoted again: “Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking? How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?”

And here we have another variation on blaming the victim, which is blaming the victim’s parents. For one thing, the girl’s mother did not grant permission for a child to be viciously assaulted. We have no background on what was going on in the victim’s private life (which is as it should be; she and her family deserve anonymity). For all we know, the girl was no more supervised at home than she was in the Quarters, and the reasons for that could be any number of possibilities. Within the article, that makes for two quotes working against the victim, and none against the accused beyond statements about how devastated the community is by the attack as a whole.

The article also states that there were not many residents of the Quarters who were willing to go on the record, which can certainly account for the paucity of balance in reporting. The only other person quoted in the article is a spokeswoman for the school district, whose quote does little to add to the story: “It’s devastating, and it’s really tearing out community apart. I really wish that this could end in a better light.” This does nothing more than confirm the title of the story, which is “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town.” (Never mind that in this entire town, only two people were willing to speak, which calls into question the validity of headlining the article as a piece about a community.)

As much as I may take issue with the hospital worker for her point of view, my real issue as far as this article is concerned has to do with the reporting, which in my opinion falls short of responsible. My intent here is not to accuse the Times or the journalists who wrote the story of misogyny, but instead I mean to point out subtle unbalances in reporting cases of violence against women. Media have a long history of covering sexual and domestic assault stories in this way. It is a habit which is unacceptable, but it is nonetheless a habit which must be broken. Whether the story is about a woman like Lara Logan who lives in the public eye, or whether it’s about an anonymous young girl, women–and all other media consumers–deserve better.

–Emily Long
Follow me on Twitter: @emlong

  • SuperJerk

    Emily,

    I completely agree with you and I thought of the same hypocrisy when I heard about the horrible Texas incident. The 11 year old girl was never named. That is part of journalism ethics, which I agree with completely. But most of the details of the attack were released. I know pretty much every thing that happened to that little girl. It may seem terrible to some that the media reports these details but let’s not forget that the 18 men accused of raping her have rights too (though hopefully not for long). They are being accused of a crime and the exact nature of that crime needs to be public record so that they can get a fair trial, go to prison and learn what it is like to be forcibly sodomized themselves. That is a fundamental part of our justice system (not the sodomy part but the rest of it). Strictly speaking, even the victim’s name is a matter of public record. Anyone can walk into the police station in Cleveland Texas and ask to read the whole police report and it will have the victim’s name. The papers choose not to print it, which is the right thing to do, ethically.
    They released Logan’s name, likely with her permission. But have not released any details. To me, now that her name is out there, her privacy is a moot point. Though this crime didn’t take place in America, to me journalism ethics still require that details be divulged. Though no one has been charged, as far as we know, in the Logan case, a crime is being alleged and the public should know the exact nature of that crime. We don’t even know if Logan filed a legal complaint with the Egyptian police. Or if people are being investigated. In a crowd like that somebody should have seen or recognized some one. If she has not filed a complaint then she is allowing these people to hurt others in the future and her silence is passively adding to the misogyny that has allowed men to get away with this for thousands of years.